Games are not gonna fix this.
I was on my way inside when something prompted me to look down. There he was, in his little blue suit — my Phoenix Wright charm, lost a week earlier, now safe by the bins. “See, good things still happen,” I thought nonsensically, bending to pick itup. It was the day the general right to abortion was eliminated in the US. The rest of my newsfeeds looked like this — there is still a war on, lest you’ve forgotten, but what won’t let you forget are the rising prices, food, your gas bill. It’s hot out, it’s only going to get hotter, safe water. Between the people talking about food bank usages going up, trans friends feeling unsafe, there are still some people bullheadedly talking about video games or posting cat pictures. Two more of my friends have caught Covid and are cancelling plans with me.
It’s one of those times when I want to be most stubbornly grateful for even the smallest things. My health, even as a therapist calls me beyond help and I sign up to another 2 year waitlist for a mental health assessment. Even as I put my foot in a sling day after day. After all it’s lucky to have health insurance and be able to use it thus. Even when the prices rise, like said insurance due to a pandemic, the food, the gas, I can find things to go without. When the walls close in, I can rent a terrible film with the press of a button and have it run while I type this. A film to do something else to. I can buy books I don’t read and games I don’t have the time to play.
I think a lot about that therapist, a very no-good no-thank-you n-no-never therapist, who after four weeks turned to me and said “you really shouldn’t be this sad.” She didn’t mean it in a chin up, there there sort of way. She was convinced my sadness prohibited me from working on myself. After all, therapy was hard work. Did I even want to get better or did I maybe want to stay sad? She asked me this after I tried to describe a feeling I’d been having for a couple of years now: the feeling of perpetually running out of time. The idea that I should do more, learn more, better myself, hustle, and sometimes I would just stare at the blank page or the game controller in my hand, and the only thought left in my head would be no. I’d look at myself, detached from this person staring unblinkingly at a white sheet of paper, and I’d tell her how important this was, how we shouldn’t just give up, but she just wouldn’t move.
“Maybe you’re just lazy,” the therapist said. “If you feel this way even on medication, you should take more until you don’t feel this way.”
What she taught me, that last session before I’d never see her again, is something I’ve come to fear: you can’t just be sad. If you’re sad, you have to be productive about it.
A couple of weeks ago I came across Never Say You Can’t Survive by Charlie Jane Anders. It was a book put in front of my eyes by an algorithm watching me browse books like A Guide To Resilience, You Will Get Through this Night and An Introduction to Worldbuilding. With Never Say You Can’t Survive, the computer spat out a book that was a little of all of these things, something that claimed it would teach me to create during times when creating seemed impossible. It’s no secret I’ve been having trouble with it. When writing is your job, you suddenly rely on a very volatile machine for all of your needs. There are seemingly no days you can just phone it in, you have to rely on ideas, those fragile things no one knows how to reliably produce. One day, I just stopped having them. It was as if someone had turned the light out on me and left me in a dark room, and it’s been that way for over two years now.
But Charlie tells me that even that feeling of complete apathy could be worth making a story out of. Because art helps. Because creators create. And I get it, I do. But as a person in this world I seem to have two options, and two options only: either I create, or I consume. And the consumption is supposed to make me better — smarter, more critical, more empathetic. Every game I play, every book I read can’t just be a thing, it has to wear it’s easily definable selling point proudly. That’s why Charlie doesn’t just teach me writing, she also doubles as my self-help coach when she is telling me to work. We’re all working constantly. The idea that I do nothing, truly nothing, seems foreign and scary. When everything seems to crumble around you and producing anything gets too difficult, you can still buy a book to get you back on track.
When the pandemic broke out, I didn’t know how to keep caring about video games. People kept dying, everything was scary. “Look at it this way,” a colleague said to me, “We’re doing important work of connecting people to the escapism they need right now.” To this day, I think that idea is absolute and utter dogshit. You don’t need to excuse the need or the want to continue doing your job when others can’t, but that doesn’t mean whatever you do has some mythical higher purpose. Being able to go on should be worth just as much as admitting you don’t know how to keep going.
My 2020 heartbreak helped me see that I at least wanted to make an effort to supply people with something they can enjoy, to become someone who makes rather than someone who watches others make. At the same time, I know no game is going to fix this.
Charlie and my colleague are people who hold the arts up like a holy grail that’s going to supply us with all the answers we need in these dark times, but in reality I wake up just as confused every morning as to how a bunch of white men with the power to rule millions can be so egocentric, so downright cartoon villain evil. No amount of actors singing Imagine made me feel any better when my great aunt died during the pandemic. We know we need the arts, but we also know that in every apocalypse scenario, the arts always go first.
And yet, when it all becomes too much, when it becomes a depersonalising experience to see the war in Ukraine next to the Wimbledon liveblog, I put on a TV show or I read a book, and I use neither as a blueprint for the future or an instrument of radicalisation or whatever, I use them to, for an hour or two at a time, steer my brain away from death. That is just as legitimate as any other way to interact with the arts that you can’t sell a book about. When I die, I will remember the sound of the curtain pulling back at the cinema. I will remember the actresses at Takarazuka, their dresses full of rhinestones as they sing the final number. I will remember feeling gloriously alive at a festival in 2007, mud up to my navel. And that will be good enough.
I often hear that Western civilisations don’t have any relationship with grief, but knowing you should probably grief doesn’t help if there isn’t any system in place that lets you effectively do so if you haven’t learned how. I feel like I’m on a grief waitlist, and in the meantime all I have are video games and Charlie Jane. I have Beyonce, a woman who famously sang “she grinds from Monday to Friday, works from Friday to Sunday” suddenly being hailed as the patron saint of the Great Resignation.
But I want to be doggedly grateful for coming out on the right side of the birth lottery, growing up in one of the richest countries in the world, a country where everything that goes well feels like luck even though it shouldn’t. Somewhere where I have the means to participate in culture, whether it’s going to save the world or not. And then I realise it’s perhaps not so much gratefulness driving me, it’s tremendous guilt. Because in a world where I am sad beyond help, where I’m a former humanities student, classed by the government as non-skilled worker due to the amount of money my degree makes me. And I want to give back. Even in this tremendously privileged industry, I want to do the best I can to do someone the very small service of a few fun hours.
Not everything has to be life-changing or even useful. Sometimes all you need is just a charm, reappearing by the bins. But in order to do that, I need to be allowed to be sad and to grieve and to take my time, because I can’t sell my grief. I can’t package it into a pleasant book or a game. I am, as my therapist said, too sad.